Sermon for 18 July 2010
Luke 10: 38-42
By Sharyn Hall
Our gospel story today is a dramatic scene with three characters – Jesus and two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha is busy preparing the meal and Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to his words. It is a familiar Bible story, but how do we picture this scene? I was surprised to discover that many great artists of the past and present have painted their interpretation of this brief Bible story. Usually the artists set the scene in domestic surroundings. In some cases, the setting reflects the artist’s idea of a simple home in ancient Palestine; however, in other paintings, the home reflects the time contemporary to the artist, whether that is the Middle Ages or the 21st century. These visual images of this familiar Bible story remind us that the messages of the story are universal and timeless. In only five verses of scripture, we can learn a great deal, but it depends on how we see the scene.
Some people see Martha as the typical woman of biblical times, confined to the home, responsible for all domestic chores and having no part in intellectual discussions. Other people see Martha as the symbol of our modern age, reflective of our western work ethic, constantly striving to get the job done and distracted by many things. Martha is a complex character. She has the traditional view of authority as the male person in the room. Instead of asking Mary to help her, she asks Jesus to order Mary to help her, but the manner in which she asks Jesus is not respectful of him. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Martha is accusing Jesus of being uncaring. Perhaps with strained patience, Jesus chastises her, not because she is rude to him, but because she is critical of Mary. Martha may know her role as a woman, but she is not afraid to speak up to a man, even if he is a holy rabbi.
Mary also is a complex character. She seems to be a gentle, obedient younger sister, who normally would be helping with the meal preparations, but when Jesus arrives, she chooses to step out of that role to sit with the men of the house and listen to Jesus. She is out of place. Someone in the room might accuse her of behaving badly. Jesus has a different view. He turns the culturally acceptable roles upside down. He praises Mary for recognizing the importance of listening to his message, of seeking to understand the will of God for her life and for the future of her people. Jesus says that Mary has the better part. The words of Jesus would surprise Martha and any other guests in their home.
The words of Jesus still surprise people today. Many of us, women and men, share the belief that the more we do, the more respect and admiration we deserve. People who spend their time pondering the meaning of life are called ‘dreamers’, or simply lazy. However, in the last few years, there has been a growing interest in seeking quiet times for contemplation and philosophical discussion. People are attending retreats to step away from the busyness of everyday life to seek spiritual renewal. This interest in spiritual growth does not reflect an increase in the practice of organized religion. Many people see organized religion as an impediment to a spiritual life, perhaps because organized religion is too organized. Perhaps religious people have become distracted by too many things, doing what is proper according to custom, and forgetting to spend time listening for the wisdom of God.
The story of Mary and Martha reminds us all that taking time to listen for God’s guidance is not only essential, it is the better part of being a disciple. If we do not slow down to spend time with God, we may crowd God out of our lives. Jesus said that the foremost commandment was to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength. Like Mary, we can choose first to seek the will of God, but the second commandment calls us to put our love for God into action. Loving others involves doing for others, caring for others in our homes, in our communities and in our world.
In the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus does not show us that Mary’s role is the only good role, or that Martha’s role is totally bad. Jesus shows us how to be disciples by being both listeners and doers. Martha’s mistake was that she placed her social role above everything else. Mary had the better part because she was searching for God in the words of Jesus. We might say that the very best part would have been for both Mary and Martha to listen to the wisdom of Jesus and then to act for the care of others. A disciple is both a listener and a doer. Perhaps the words of Jesus caused Martha to pause a little while, and later Mary got up to clear the dishes.
This story is about two women, but I hope that men also are paying attention. Men also can see themselves only as ‘doers’ and can feel uncomfortable sitting quietly. Dare I say that men, more than women, fall asleep during sermons? We all have the same challenge to listen for the still, small voice of God in the whirlwind of our daily lives. The story of Mary and Martha can help us with that challenge. Picture Jesus sitting in YOUR kitchen. Would you offer him a cup of tea and sit down to listen to him, or would you be distracted by many things? When you feel overwhelmed because there is always more to do, remember the story of Mary and Martha, pause, and listen for the wisdom of God. Amen.